It Didn’t Take Long for the Fight to Get Knocked Out of Bruins
What was that saying again? You know, the one this space has mocked as antique and scorned as irrelevant?
As warm afternoon turned to misty night Saturday, the words swirled around the old Coliseum like a familiar dust.
Perhaps never before in 71 years of the USC-UCLA tiff has one phrase meant so much for one team ... and so little for the other.
Reviving their past, the Trojans fought on.
Betraying their present, the Bruins fought not.
One final score was USC 27, UCLA 0.
Another was Pete Carroll 1, Bob Toledo 0.
A shutout in either case, and both complete poundings, with the differences between these two teams as apparent as their coach’s postgame assignments.
On one end of the crowded field, a drenched Carroll was standing on a platform directing the USC band.
At the other end, a pale Toledo was facing the music.
Said Carroll: “Earlier this week I told my team we would win this game. I believed it. I really believed it.”
Said Toledo: “We were totally inept.”
Everything Saturday was like that, a monumental collision transformed into a vivid contrast.
As quick as UCLA’s Brian Poli-Dixon quitting on a pass that bounced off his chest.
As quick as USC’s Antuan Simmons not quitting on the same pass, grabbing it off his knee and wrapping it around his leg and returning it past the inert receiver for a first-quarter touchdown that symbolized an afternoon.
“Poli-Dixon got down on himself and quit on the play,” Simmons said. “One thing coaches teach you is that you don’t quit until the whistle blows.”
He paused, smiled, and threw one last barb at his Bruin senior counterpart.
“Thank you,” he said.
It was that fast, that startling, and, given the team’s respective positions last month, downright dizzying.
On one sideline, Carroll embraced a team that trusted.
On the other sideline, Toledo fumed at a team that didn’t.
From one sideline, the USC captains walked to the pregame coin toss holding hands.
From the other sideline, the UCLA captains walked out with arms stiffly at their sides.
The USC players raced to the tunnel at halftime.
The UCLA players walked, facing a 17-0 deficit.
At the end of the game, the team that was once 1-4 stayed late to dance.
While the team that was once 6-0 couldn’t leave fast enough.
Said Carroll: “I thought it would be harder than that.”
Said Toledo: “I’m kind of speechless right now.”
After a week of talk about spies and stunts and drunks and Expeditions, no words were needed.
What USC quarterback Carson Palmer said afterward was already clear.
“We’re going in a good direction,” he said. “And they’re not.”
He could have been talking about the coaches.
In fact, this was all about the coaches.
Despite early criticism of his offensive coordinator (Norm Chow) and his game management and seemingly confused deportment, Carroll ends his first season with the last laugh.
His thinly talented team plays hard. They play careful. And man, do they play defense.
Not to mention, after watching them blow games at Oregon and Notre Dame, Carroll led them on their bellies into a bowl game for the first time in three years.
“With a man like Coach Carroll, you can’t do nothing but follow him, you love him so much,” safety Troy Polamalu said.
It’s not apparent if anybody is following the other guy.
Despite early praise and national championship expectations, Toledo nears the end of his sixth regular season with his first serious question.
Has he really lost this team?
The offensive line, which usually protects Cory Paus, crumbled under the USC rush.
Poli-Dixon, who was Paus’ best target against Oregon last week, ran bad routes and dropped balls and didn’t catch a pass before being benched.
The defense, ranked first in the Pac-10, missed tackles and was suckered on big plays from that first 66-yard pass against a blitz to an open tight end, from Palmer to Kori Dickerson, that led to the first Trojan score.
Those were the sorts of plays that opponents used to embarrass the Bruins in the past couple of years. Those were the plays that the veterans claimed would not be repeated.
Has Toledo really lost this team?
Since that first loss to Stanford last month, some players have reportedly felt he has increasingly criticized their play without taking much blame himself.
Some were also reportedly upset that he was publicly tough on DeShaun Foster, who was declared ineligible for accepting the use of a free car.
Then, when Toledo didn’t appear as tough on Paus in the past week after revelations of two Paus alcohol-related driving incidents, the mood supposedly darkened.
These are the sorts of problems that arose in 1998, when, before the now-infamous game in Miami, the team was divided over a decision to wear black armbands.
Those internal problems spilled on to the field in an ugly loss that cost them the national championship.
On Saturday, it seemed as if it was happening again.
Paus, who claims he was not distracted by the week’s events, throws for only 45 yards? A team coached by one of college football’s best offensive minds gains only 114 yards?
Toledo’s smartest team has as many combined fumbles and interceptions (seven) as first downs rushing and passing?
“It didn’t seem like they wanted it very much,” Palmer said. “It seemed like they weren’t very hungry.”
Didn’t we once hear the Miami players say the same thing?
“It’s been a trying time for the coaches and the team,” Toledo said. “We’ve been leaned on pretty hard.”
But so, too, has rookie coach Carroll.
Yet on Saturday, unlike the reluctant little Bruins, the Trojans did something about it. The Trojans fought on.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com.